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Turning Houseguests Into Helpers

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Planting season is winding down, so we can all catch a breath, but only a quick one. After school is out, houseguest season is just around the corner.

Usually I like having company. It's easier to make beds or set places at the table for family and friends than it is to visit their distant homes. And guests are less underfoot in summer as life spills outdoors. But the fact remains that many who flock to our farm are on vacation, and we are not. That is why my Memorial Day resolution this year is to harness houseguests to the plow, so I can enjoy them without letting the gardens grow up in weeds. As the old Swahili proverb says, "Treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day give him a hoe."

True gardeners, who recognize weeds and can extract them roots and all, are especially welcome. Some of the best times are spent with a sister or a friend, deep in conversation as we work our way through the asparagus patch. But I'm happy to instruct anyone in the fascinating art of garden maintenance, trumpeted like Tom Sawyer's fence. Men like big jobs with dramatic results: turning a compost pile, planting a tree and anything involving the tractor. Children are often the most useful of all. They like picking off potato beetles. They will stand for long stretches with a hose as long as they can fool around with it a little. Small kids are endlessly absorbed by watering cans. Older ones are good at deadheading flowers.

The best use for guests comes at dinnertime. With many to feed, there is less time for harvesting, and hands of any age can be put to work. Children are always eager to pick berries or cherry tomatoes, stealing a few along the way. Even the most useless guest can help: "Henry, would you mind taking that cigarette outside, and while you're there cut me a few zucchini? The plant has big leaves and yellow flowers."

Cocktail hour brings a small army of prep cooks, and I hand out peas to shell, beans to snap and tomatoes to slice the way some hostesses pass cheese and crackers. Among my old family photos are countless scenes of grandparents and great-grandparents sitting on Louisiana lawns with friends and children, shelling peas. It was the way they visited.

If your garden is near the house and its play areas, it allows you to socialize while you work. If not, that's fine, too. With the hive a bit too abuzz, it's also the perfect place to hide.

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